Monday, June 13, 2011

DAUGHTER OF WINTER by Pat Lowery Collins

Daughter of Winter by Pat Lowery Collins is one of those books that a lot of people write to me about. I ordered a copy from the Urbana Free Library in April and read it, making notes as I did. I meant to write about it right away, but the news broke about bin Laden and the use of Geronimo's name for bin Laden, and I set Daughter of Winter aside and am returning to it now.

Here's the product description from the Amazon site:
It’s 1849, and twelve-year-old Addie lives in the shipbuilding town of Essex, Massachusetts. Her father has left the family to seek gold on the West Coast, and now the flux has taken the lives of her mother and baby brother, leaving Addie all alone. Her fear of living as a servant in some other home drives her into the snowy woods, where she survives on her own for several weeks before a nomadic, silver-haired Wampanoag woman takes her in. Slowly, the startling truth of Addie’s past unfolds. Through an intense ancient ceremony, and by force of her own wits and will, Addie unravels the mystery of her identity — and finds the courage to build a future unlike any she could ever have imagined. 
I like the cover. The story? It doesn't work. Glaring problems abound. That "nomadic, silver-haired Wampanoag woman" turns out to be Nokummus, Addie's grandmother who, we're told several times, sits cross-legged. 

  • On page 107, "Nokummus sat cross-legged on a pile of blankets..." 
  • On page 108, "It is time for a story," she said, cross-legged again..." 
  • On page 111, "...we sat cross-legged together inside a large wetu.  
 Why insert "cross-legged" each time? Does it matter? Is it an important detail? Would it have mattered if the first sentence read "Nokummus sat on a pile of blankets..."  and the last one said "we sat together inside a large wetu." 

Let's think about sitting with your legs crossed. I sit that way when I'm sitting on my bedroll when we're camping. I don't do that because I'm an Indian! It just happens to be a comfortable way to sit when you don't have a chair handy. I'd bet that you sit that way, too. It isn't an "Indian" thing to do, but it is definitely associated with Indians...

I don't know how, when, or why "sit Indian style" came into common use. I found an interesting discussion about it, wherein a photographer says that kids today don't know what it means. He asks (in a forum) about the phrase. Reading comments there and elsewhere, it looks like the phrase is dropping out of use. Young children are being taught to sit "criss cross applesauce" or "like a pretzel" instead. Course, adults still use it without pause. A good case in point is Laura Bush, who uses it in her book, Spoken from the Heart. She writes on page 47: "We would stand silently with our binoculars, or sit Indian style, and wait for the birds to swoop down..."

In two other places in Daughter of Winter we read about Nokummus sitting. On page 156 Nokummus "sat down by the fire." Later on page 251, she sits on a stoop.

How do other characters sit? At one point, Addie and John are by a fire. They "sat" as John cooks a rabbit. 

Am I belaboring this point?! Maybe. I'll move on to other aspects of the book that yanked me out o the story...

Like...  the way that Nokummus is described.  From here on, I'll need to distinguish summary from my thoughts. I'll put my thoughts in italics.

In chapter one, Addie walks in the early morning. She sees a cloudy mass that "began to rise into the air, geyser-like, to become a gauzy figure with arms outstretched, long flowing hair, and an aura of golden light" (p. 12). The figure takes on features and then the "cavernous mouth" begins to speak in words "laden with years and intoned like a dirge" (p. 12). It says "I have kept your feather and shell" (p. 12).   

That's pretty dramatic stuff! Scary, too. 

In chapter two, Addie has fallen asleep in her house. Darkness has fallen and she wakes in the dark. Searching for a candle "she passed a closed window, her eyes traveled to the blackness outside it, blackness that was suddenly penetrated by the shadowy specter of a wizened face framed in wild white hair" (p. 20).   

Even more scary! That figure is now outside her house!

In chapter seven, Addie is walking home from school. She sees someone walking along the same path she's on. From "the leather breeches and wildly colored skirt tucked up into her beaded belt" she figures out that it is "the old Wampanoag woman who often appeared throughout the town and its surroundings and always traveled alone" (p. 53).

Addie wonders if the woman speaks English. As she passes by her, Addie says "good day" and the woman reaches out and grabs Addie, who "jumped at the sudden rough hold. It scratched her skin and felt more like the claw of an animal than a human touch" (p. 53). She tries to get away, but when she stops struggling, the woman lets her go. Addie looks at her and "couldn't contain her horror" at the woman's face. "[T]he features sprang at her--the black eyes, the thin lips, a string of small moles beneath the hairline, the wizened cheeks--and she saw again that same face as it had appeared at her window only nights before, framed by hair as white as the snow on the ground" (p. 54).

And even scarier! The figure has now touched Addie!

The woman asks Addie to call her Nokummus. When Addie says "Nokummus" aloud, the woman smiles, "displaying blue and missing teeth" (p. 55).

By the time Addie runs away, I've got a pretty firm image of Nokummus fixed in my mine. She's scary but, she seems to know things about Addie that Addie needs to know, so she hopes Nokummus will help her out when she runs away. But, it is a long time before Nokummus appears because she's been testing Addie's courage and perseverance in the face of struggle. 

When she does appear, Addie has passed the test, and so, Nokummus is intent on turning Addie into the tribal leader that White Moon (Nokummus's daughter and Addie's birth mother) turned away from to marry Addie's white father. 

Nokummus has never gotten over that decision, and ever since White Moon died (when Addie was a baby), Nokummus has been searching for White Moon's grave.

The novel is sprinkled with many Wampanoag words and information. Cooper has obviously done a lot of research, but I think the novel is a good example of how research can still fail to produce a work that is a realistic portrayal of a Native character or life. In all that research, didn't Cooper find stories about Native grandmothers that were kind, caring, women? Were they all intense and obsessive?

To me, this grandmother is a nut. If I think of her as an insane woman, then the novel works. But I don't think that Cooper means us to think of the woman as insane. She's just a Native woman. All the drama around her life might appeal to that uninformed reader, but to me, it just doesn't work.

Another part of the story that doesn't work for me is the naming. Nokummus tells Addie (see page 65) that before White Moon died, she gave Addie the name "Little Red Tree" because "you were a very long baby, very red in the face." I wish that Cooper's book had an author's note that told me where she got that idea of naming. As it is, it just feels to me like one more instance of Indian fakelore.  

The cover of the book is gorgeous. I wish I could say that about the story.  


Peaceful Reader said...

My daughter and I are reading this book right now and are enjoying it. I agree with your points but don't feel like it is enough to quit the book. I picked it up from the library because the cover intrigued me and we like books with inclusive diversity. Thanks for this honest review.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Reese, do you know if any of the books that feature Indians sitting cross-legged also have those same Indians saying "Om" or something similar? Because when I first saw the "Indian style" phrase a few years ago in an online forum post and looked it up, I thought it had to do with meditating. Many people now seem to think that cross-legged sitting is the universal meditation position or something. If that's so, then having American Indians sit that way in a book must be very New Age-like. Curse those stupid white authors.

Jean Mendoza said...

Anonymous (11/21 at 9:59 PM), That would be quite the stereotype mash-up, if it ever happened.

Maybe you're very, very young (or maybe are not from the US) and were never in a classroom or scout group where you were told to "sit like an Indian" or "sit Indian style" on the floor. In the US, it always was/is a reference to the stereotypes from "Old West" movies and TV shows, which featured "Indians" (usually non-Native actors, male) sitting cross-legged around a fire to discuss some matter of importance. I think it's safe to say that meditation was never involved. It's been about 10 years since i heard an adult direct kids to do that, and even before that, the trend was to say "criss-cross-applesauce" when directing kids to sit on the floor. Or just "sit cross-legged."

Maybe you already know that the type of meditation you're talking about wasn't part of the US national consciousness until more recently, and doesn't seem to be associated strictly with India in the mass mind. And it involves much more than just "sitting cross-legged." So it's doubtful anyone in the US would be thinking of that when telling kids to sit "Indian style" or when writing/illustrating a children's book. Somebody, somewhere, might be foisting misunderstandings of meditation positions onto children, either at sit-on-the-floor time or in books they write, but so far those haven't come to our awareness.

We're not in the business of casting curses. Encouraging people to think critically about misrepresentations of Native people (or any people) is much more effective.